A new tool for talking writing: LCT and semantic waves

I completed my PhD last year, and I’m now embarking on postdoctoral research. One of the things I am really excited about is applying my conceptual framework to different kinds of teaching, learning and academic work to the case studies I looked at in my PhD. Specifically, I would like to connect my framework – Legitimation Code Theory – with my academic writing and academic literacies work where possible. This post reflects some of that thinking, so indulge me a little, if you will :).

Legitimation Code Theory (LCT), very briefly, builds on the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Basil Bernstein, but subsumes and extends aspects of these two eminent sociologists’ work to create a conceptual and analytical ‘toolkit’ that enables researchers to ‘dig’ beneath what they can see on the surface to find the organising principles underlying practices. It is a critical realist framework, and in terms of my own research in education – pedagogy in particular – it has been very useful because it enables a focus on knowledges as well as on the knowers without conflating the two as a social constructivist epistemology can end up doing. In sum, the toolkit can enable close-up, detailed research that can look meaningfully at what underlies our practices, beliefs and approaches to teaching and learning, for example, so that we can understand the whats, whys and hows, and think more carefully about how to change what needs changing.

One aspect of the ‘toolkit’ I have been using in my own research is Semantics, which comprises two tools: semantic gravity and semantic density. I’ll just be looking at the first tool, semantic gravity, in this post. Drawing on Karl Maton’s 2013 book, Knowledge and Knowers, semantic gravity concerns the degree of connection between meanings and the contexts in which they find application. So a concept/term that does not require a specific context to be understood, and is more abstract or generalised, displays weaker semantic gravity because it is further from any particular context. It could be brought into and transformed in a range of contexts, or applications. A concept/term that cannot easily be understood or applied outside of a particular application or context displays stronger semantic gravity – it is more dependent for meaning on the context in which it has been introduced.

If we work too much in spaces with either weaker or stronger semantic gravity we run the risk of either making it difficult for students to understand how to apply and work with abstract knowledge OR making it very difficult for students to extract abstract meanings from problems and applications to be able to move into different contexts and work ably within them. What is necessary, for students to integrate conceptual understandings with application or problem-solving for example, is a waving movement from stronger to weaker semantic gravity as concepts are drawn up, for example, from students’ own contextual and applied knowledge, and then crucially back into the context to show how using different kinds of conceptual knowledge can lead to different ways of working within that context and then back up to abstraction again and so on. This can be called a ‘gravity wave’ and it could look, heuristically, a  bit like this:


Generic semantic gravity wave

Generic semantic gravity wave

I want to now reflect on how we started to use this tool to think about our conversations with students, focused on developing their writing, and them as writers. I started with a tutor workshop, showing the tutors the tools and getting them to try them out a little. Then I asked them to explicitly think about ‘waving’ in their peer tutorials with students, and reflect on whether and how this worked for them, or didn’t, in their narrative reports written about each tutorial. The conjecture we wanted to start thinking about using Semantics was this: If we work only or mostly in the context of each individual written task, talking about, for example, this introduction, rather than talking about introductions in writing more generally and then using that ‘concept’ to analyse the specific introduction in front of us with a view to revisions, are we not doing students’ longer-term growth as reflective writers a disservice? How would our conversations, and students’ view of their writing, change if we were able to more clearly focus on moving between the assignment itself and more generalised or abstracted meanings that can attach to parts of academic writing, like introductions and arguments?

The tutors offered some very interesting feedback in their reports as they started to apply this tool, very lightly, in their tutorial sessions. I was also able to observe them, and was able to ‘hear’ how they were trying to wave the conversations up and down, rather than staying down in the context of the assignment students were working on. Several tutors, for example, commented that they started in the contexts, always: asking students how they are, what they are working on, what concerns or problems they’d like to talk about in the session. Then they moved to the essay, asking students to talk to them about what they had done thus far, and where the draft was in terms of work in progress. Then, depending on their prior reading of the task and analysis of the key issues, tutors tried to shift up the wave a bit, asking students for more generalised understandings of, for example, what referencing is and why we do it, or what an introduction looks like generally, and what purpose it serves in a piece of writing. After establishing more general ‘principles’ like this, the tutors then tried to bring students back down the wave into the referencing or introduction in the assignment in front of them, asking students to then think about where they might be able to improve or make changes, and why.

Most tutors found that this more explicit notion of what could be considered ‘abstract’ and ‘contextual’ in written assignments, and especially the idea of needing to move a student between the two in successive waves over the course of a conversation about an assignment, very interesting, and useful. Often, due to time constraints, student panic, and tutors really wanting to help students improve a piece of writing, we stay too much in the context of this assignment, these writing challenges, these revisions. The worry is that, while this assignment may improve, students may not necessarily take forward from the experience a wider or less specific understanding of what they did well or not, and may therefore struggle with the same issues in similar ways in future assignments, slowing their growth as confident and competent writers.

Rather than staying ‘down’ in the context, being able to bring students ‘up’, even a little, to where they can see the whole picture, and a wider understanding of principles of academic writing more generally, may enable them to go back down, over and over, into different assignments with increasingly greater dexterity in adapting the principles to effectively respond to assignment criteria, and cumulatively develop a deeper understanding of academic writing and what it takes to do it well.

Maton, K. 2013. Knowledge and knowers. Towards a realist sociology of education. London: Routledge.

Generic or specific: writing in and across the disciplines

We get a lot of requests at our writing centre, as I am sure is true of many writing centres, for generic writing skills workshops. Requests like: ‘Can you come and tell my students how to write at university?’ or ‘Can you come and run a skills workshop on essay writing?’ I have serious reservations about any kind of workshop that tries to give students a list of ‘skills’ they need to master in order to be a better writer, or a workshop that approaches improving your writing as knowing what writing at university is broadly and matching what you do to that set of characteristics or features. There’s a lot of research in the field of academic writing and literacies that shows that generic, one-method-of-essay-writing-serves-all-disciplines approaches to teaching writing don’t really work for the majority of students. The ones who succeed following these workshops were probably already fairly confident or capable writers. Essay writing guides are often gobbledygook to those who do not already have some knowledge about essay writing (much like user guides for electronic equipment).

My response to these requests is always to ask for more information: what assignments are the students working on? What are the assessment criteria? What are the lecturer’s expectations of the students in relation to the task, and what are some of the things they have noticed their students struggling with? What would an excellent piece of work look like? This information helps me to then explain to the lecturer requesting the workshop how we work, at our writing centre, with students either through workshops or individual tutorials. We prefer not to come in with a completely generic workshop, and leave it to the students to work out how to adapt our generic tools and discussion to their specific disciplinary task. We also, however, cannot come in as disciplinary experts and design a completely specific writing workshop either. We sit somewhere between the generic and specific; somewhere between being in a discipline and working across them. So, what we design, and what we take to students in different departments and faculties, is a mix: a brief framing of the kind of writing they are doing and what its aims and goals are, like a lab report or a discursive essay, followed by a brief and focused ‘toolkit’ for writing that includes useful, more generic tools to help them think  and write. For example, how to write clear paragraphs and why this clarity is important in an essay, report, or thesis. We also try to make space for them to do some writing and to  discuss their particular task and particular assessment criteria and expectations and to connect the tools to the specific task.

These kinds of workshop, often, are one-off and tend to stand alone. Over the past few years we have set up relationships across the university with lecturers who come to these workshops and then build on and reinforce a more process-oriented and explicit approach towards writing in their classes, explaining their expectations more clearly to students and helping them to work on their writing through improved feedback. We have also run more than one workshop in these departments and have had students come to see us for individual tutorials, so we can start and continue conversations about writing, and learn more about the specifics of the writing in those disciplines and modules. But many lecturers want workshops that will ‘fix’ the problems and will help students acquire the right kinds of skills, and they tend to see their role as teaching the disciplinary knowledge or ‘content’ and someone else (a writing centre or academic literacy course) takes on the job of teaching the skills.

We really try, in our planning phase, to include lecturers and to open up conversations about what does count as generic and what is actually more specific about the writing their students are doing, and therefore what we can help with and what we need them to be considering more of in their own ongoing teaching. We think about this a lot as writing tutors, and look at what different kinds of writing entail and require, so that we can use our own disciplinary knowledge and experience to deepen our understanding of academic writing, and use this to inform that ways in which we talk to students, advise, encourage and assist them. We run workshops with tutors in the disciplines, asking them to think of all the characteristics of academic writing they can, and then dividing this list into generic features that apply (albeit realised in a range of texts) to all writing (like having a clear and coherent structure, an introduction and conclusion, references and citations etc), and more specific features that really apply to their discipline (like writing only in the 3rd person in scientific reports, or the necessity of using both contemporary and older research and documents in Theology, or the necessity of using ‘archaic’ terms and phrasing in legal contracts).

These encounters with writing ask lecturers, tutors and also students to stop and think: what is more generic and what is quite specific in this piece of writing? What do I need to do to hand in an acceptable piece of work, how do I do that, and why do these features/characteristics have to be included? Why do I need to be precise, and write in tightly structured paragraphs? What needs to be part of my introduction and how do I need to write one for this essay? These are some of the questions that can be asked and answered, moving lecturers, tutors and students towards a clearer and more focused understanding of what writing counts, what makes it count and how to direct students towards achieving success.

Writing well requires mastery of both the generic and specific features of any type or form of text: understanding which is which and how a writer’s grasp of these features impact on the writing he or she is doing is hopefully one way of ensuring a more conscious and less bewildering writing experience.

Can we unthink the way we think about writing? Part 1

It’s 2014, and after a much needed break we are back and work and back on the blog. I want to start off this year with a short think-piece about something I have been wondering about for a while. Unthinking the way we think about writing, or aspects of how we teach students to write in academia. This post will be part one.

By unthinking what I am trying to get at is questioning our assumptions about what makes academic writing generally good, or worthy of praise or recognition – some of the ways in which we write and think in academia are so for good reasons and don’t necessarily warrant changes; but not all of them are so helpful and may even be making it harder for students to succeed. Perhaps, then, the start of a new academic year (for us in the Southern hemisphere at least) is a good time to ponder some of these issues.

My first example is the way we deal with plagiarism. I have lost count of the number of assignments we have seen where the task question starts with a list of all the rules for the task, at least two of which have to do with referencing and plagiarism and really severe punishments for instances of the latter. Many of the students we work with have been told that they must reference and that plagiarism is a very serious offence but have no idea what plagiarism really is, or how to avoid it. This is especially so for first and second year students. It has somehow become assumed that someone, somewhere will explain this to students and so many lecturers don’t take the time to explain either how to reference or how to avoid plagiarism to their students. Many students fail at avoiding plagiarism – I did when I was an undergraduate – and many are really worried all the time that they are going to get into serious trouble. Surely we can adopt a different, gentler and more pedagogical approach here.

Shelley Angelil-Carter wrote an excellent book some years ago entitled ‘Stolen Language?’ in which she talked, and here I really am paraphrasing, about the need for students to ‘try on’ different kinds of academic discourse, almost like wearing clothes that don’t quite fit and adjusting them to fit over time, as they grow into them. Another version of this is ‘fake it til you make it’ – writing in a voice and tone and style that is mimicry rather than your own until it becomes your own and feels authentic and easier to keep working in. Students need to ‘try on’ their new academic discourses and often need to ‘steal’ the language and words of others who already have the right voice to try and work out how theirs should sound.

I am not advocating for plagiarism – referencing the work of others is more than academic convention; it also speaks to how knowledge is cumulatively built within intellectual and educational fields and also how shifts in knowledge knowing and making have occurred over time, for example. It is very important and necessary for students to learn how and when to reference and also why. But what I am advocating for is creating space, at undergraduate level particularly, for students to practice writing over and over in the new discourses they need to become familiar with.

This space needs to be low-stakes – no or little assessment or marks and no punishment attached – and students need to be guided as to how to begin to claim a new voice. Exemplars of successful essays can be given to students and lecturers can talk more about what makes these exemplars worthy of good marks and praise. Likewise, exemplars of poorly performing essays can also be discussed. Tutorials can focus on getting students to talk and write more and become more aware of particular conventions and expectations within different disciplines and why these are there. Assessment schedules can be rethought to allow more time for students to practice writing before they are asked to hand in an assignment that counts for a significant percentage of their overall mark but for which they have had very few chances to really prepare.

Most importantly, though, we could shift our focus in higher education from the products of student work to the process that is an education. It takes a long time to cultivate a way of seeing the world, or a ‘gaze’ (Maton 2013). It’s a process that is completed most successfully by have many opportunities for immersion in the new ways of thinking, reading, writing and so on with those who already have this gaze and can guide, teach and help novice students (see Bernstein 1999). Monica Hendricks and Lynn Quinn wrote a very interesting paper a while back about teaching referencing to students as epistemological access to knowing in the disciplines, and their argument is sound: learning how to reference and how to use other people’s words and ideas to shape our own thinking and intellectual development is way more than convention; it is indeed an issue of epistemic access to knowledge and ways of knowing it.

Rather than trying to punish students for failing to recognize often tacit academic conventions and produce ‘perfect’ work, we could see their failures (especially at the beginning of their studies) as opportunities to open up discussions about how disciplines make knowledge and value it, and why we have to enter into conversations with others, living and dead through what we read, in order to grow our own understandings of the world or the parts of it we are interested in learning about and researching. We could explain more clearly the nature of academic research and why academic work has value, and why students need to cite others – not as a chore or as a rule, but as an act that makes them part of these academic conversations and that make them not just knowers of knowledge but potentially also able to contribute to what Leesa Wheelahan calls ‘society’s conversation about what it should be like’ (163).

Angélil-Carter, S. (2000). Stolen language? Harlow, UK: Longman.

Bernstein, B. (1999). Vertical and Horizontal Discourse: An Essay. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 20(2), 157-173.

Hendricks, M., & Quinn, L. (2000). Teaching referencing as an introduction to epistemological empowerment. Teaching in Higher Education, 5(4), 447-457.

Maton, K. (2013). Knowledge and Knowers. Towards a realist sociology of education. London: Routledge, 86-105.

Wheelahan, L. 2010. Why knowledge matters in curriculum. A social realist argument. London: Routledge, 145-163.

Spelling and grammar checkers are not always simple tools for students to use

Image from examiner.com

Image from examiner.com

How many times have you read a student’s (typed) essay and been really frustrated by their poor spelling, not to mention all the commas either missing or in the wrong places? How many of you, in that situation, have thought ‘why do they ignore the red and green squiggles? Why don’t they just use the spelling and grammar checkers?’ I confess, I have thought that. And in workshops in recent years I have urged students to learn how to use these tools to their advantage as student-writers. However, recently I had a conversation with a student that made me wonder just how helpful these tools are, especially to students for whom English is not a mother-tongue or first language, or prior language of learning and teaching.

This student, in response to my querying whether they were comfortable using MSWord, and whether they knew how to make best use of the spelling and grammar checkers, commented that she knew what they were, but that often they left her feeling confused, and she made choices to change spelling and grammar without always knowing what she was doing. Often, she said, she could not make a grammar correction because the ‘help’ was not helpful. For example, when the grammar checker advises you that you have a ‘Fragment’ and should (consider revising). Or when it helpfully suggests that you are writing in the ‘Passive voice’ and should also (consider revising). If you do not know how to consistently write in full English sentences, you will not find the first suggestion of ‘help’ useful. It will confuse and even worry you. In South African universities, and in some disciplines like many of the natural sciences and also History and English, the passive voice tends to be preferred over a more active voice, also leading some students into confusing territory. There are also many other pieces of advice that the grammar checker suggests that would actually make your sentences nonsensical if you followed them, usually concerning subject and verb agreement. When it underlines your work in green squiggles, MSWord is telling you that your writing is not correct, but it also is not always helping you to make  the right revisions or explaining why you need them. So, a simple and flippant ‘just use the grammar checker’ is perhaps not always the most useful thing to say to an undergraduate student, even one who has been taught previously in English or has it as a first or home language.

Furthermore, spelling checkers are, in my opinion, only really usable in an educated way if you already have a sense of how the word should be spelled. If you have no idea, then being presented with options may not be helpful. Often, the spell checker is more useful in picking up errors in spelling caused by typing clumsiness  rather than actual errors in spelling, and in these cases students can often work out from the options given which word they intended to type and choose from the list. However, where they have genuinely misspelled the word because they do not know how to spell it at all, they may just choose the first option, and that may not be the right one in the context of the sentence. When I was teaching academic writing courses I could always tell when a student had blindly followed the spelling and grammar checkers’ advice because their work bore the marks of the confusion and missteps that the checkers prompted them to take. I wish I could recall actual examples, but I think many who have marked these kinds of essays will have their own to relate this to.

Many students in South Africa are fairly new to computers when they come to university, and many still, even if they are very familiar with this technology seem to trust that computer knows what the answer is, because, after all, it is programmed to have the answers. Google always does, so why not MSWord? As I always tell students in workshops now, while acknowledging the challenges of using these tools and their shortcomings, is that the computer does not have an active, thinking brain, It is only doing what it is programmed to do. You have an active, thinking brain that has a seemingly endless capacity to learn, including how to spell words correctly, and how to write clearly. It’s not easy for many students, but with time, practice and help, I think it is possible to improve your writing and become better at being your own spelling and grammar checker; at least so that you can tell the PC when you are going to ‘Ignore’ its suggestions with greater confidence!

Why I enjoy blogging, and why students could too

I started this blog for the Writing Centre in April last year. I was very new to blogging at the time, and wanted to find a way of writing about what we do and who we are and the issues we are concerned about as a writing centre team that allowed us to connect to readers and interested people more immediately and more informally. I also wanted the tutors to begin to write some of the posts and find a less daunting way of thinking about some of the aspects of their work with students and as writers, and share these thoughts in this informal space.

Academic publishing is a tough field. In South Africa we are encouraged to publish in accredited journals, and many of these have high rejection rates and it can take more than a year for your work to appear in print. Many of these journals make papers available only to those with subscriptions, so your work is not available openly to all who may want to read it, for free. Writing for these journals and at this level is also challenging, takes time, needs to conform in specific ways more often than not, and is not always enjoyable, especially when a paper you hoped you were done with comes back with reviewers’ reports requesting significant rethinking, revising and rewriting in order to be publishable!

I love blogging for these reasons. It’s online, it’s free to read and anyone can sign up to follow your blog and read and think about what you have to say. There is a sense of a more immediate community in some ways, as people ‘like’ posts and can comment on them quite informally, and that is always encouraging. I don’t have to reference, and find lots of evidence for all the claims I make. I can wonder, conjecture, provoke and think in this space, and just leave questions out there without immediate answers. I don’t write just any old thing and I do think about what I want to say and the relevance it may have for readers interested in writing and academic literacy in education – as an academic it all comes from spaces in my head and work-life that have theory and thinking within and behind them. But this space feels freer than my other academic writing, and it takes less time to do. I can adopt a more relaxed and even humorous tone, and I can play with words and phrases in ways that academic publishing does not often allow.

I enjoy blogging because I enjoy being free to write without second-guessing what I write, and because it gives me a space in which to form ideas and think about things I am not quite ready to research and write full journal articles about. I gives me, and hopefully also my tutoring colleagues, a place to write about ideas we may never write formal articles about but which are still interesting to us, and hopefully others, and which should be put out there, perhaps for others to take up and carry further. Many academics ask students to blog now as part of ongoing assessment, as a way to get them to think about and reflect on what they are learning – not necessarily for lots of marks, but definitely for lots of learning. As a form of low stakes and formative assessment, I think blogs are an excellent teaching, learning and writing tool. And they make writing fun, which for students ( and academics) is always a good thing :).

Why we should still be writing academic essays at university

I have been wanting to write this post for a while, but I had the sense that I needed to do a bit more by way of research in order to write it well, and have thus been putting it off. I always seem to have too many other Things To Do, like write my PhD draft. Which is, itself, like a very long essay. It has an introduction,  it is developing an argument using research, data and other kinds of evidence and my own critical thinking about that evidence and my own argument, and it will finish with a conclusion that will (hopefully) pull it all together. Granted, it is about 78000 words longer than the average undergraduate student’s essay, but the basic idea behind the structure, and I would argue, the intent, is the same. The point is to teach me, as the student, to produce a well-research, sustained and academic piece of writing and thinking that will enable me to move forward in my own ability to think critically and to do research that contributes to knowledge in my field. It will also enable me to more confidently join, and also contribute to and extend relevant conversations and debates in my field. I am learning how to think outside of my own narrower conceptions of the world and even my field, and I am learning to think in ways that allow me to more ably join what Wheelahan (2010) calls ‘society’s conversation about itself’.

This is, ideally, what the university essay is aiming to teach undergraduate students. In many of the essay writing guides I could find online, the first paragraph was an introduction to why students are asked to write essays at university. They mention things like ‘learning to think critically’; ‘producing a sustained piece of thinking and writing’ on a particular topic; learning to write in the forms required of the discipline, and so on. Undergraduate essays generally focus on getting students to read a range of sources on a particular topic, and respond to a question that asks them to take a stance and make an argument, using those sources to support the claims they make. They are responding to the specific, but learning to move to the general to explain it. They are learning to think about, read about, and join conversations that take them beyond their own narrow ways of thinking about the world, and help them to see, appreciate and also challenge other world views, as well as defend their own. These are useful skills to have in the world of work. All work requires workers to be able to apply knowledge and skills in a range of ways to different situations. We can’t always predict what these situations will be. Thus, we need to learn how to navigate between what we know and think now and what is yet to be thought, to borrow from Basil Bernstein (2000). We need a bridge between the specific contexts in which we are working and the general or abstract world of theory and knowledge that we know and also that we don’t yet know, and in the complex process that goes into producing academic essays we can learn how to do this, and in different ways as we become more proficient and confident readers, writers and thinkers.

While there are many other forms of written work that are useful for students to be writing, like reports, portfolios and narratives, and while changes to the way we find, use and think about knowledge and learning may have led some in and outside of universities to wonder whether students should still be writing essays over other more ‘relevant’ kinds of writing, I think the university essay will endure. Not because of what students write about in these pieces of work, but because of what these extended exercises in reading, thinking and writing are training students to do in terms of developing their capacity to join and contribute to, and also to extend, society’s conversations about itself.